Beards, Blazers & Glasses: Kelley Stoltz
Kelley Stoltz must be frustrated. I'm sure, being a folksy singer/songwriter living in the Bay Area has its advantages. He plays the guitar quite well and writes really pretty pop songs which must help him snag McSweeney's type girls all throughout the Bay Area bar scene. But outside of that, it's got to be at least a little irritating to constantly have to hear the word "underrated" slapped onto the end of your name.
That's what seems to happen to singer/songwriters without interesting back-stories. Check out recent blog favorites. Elvis Perkins' songs are fantastic, but they hit a little bit harder knowing his gut-wrenching backstory. Beirut is 20 years old, sings like he's 50 and has a taste for Balkan Brass Bands like he's 80. Sufjan writes albums about every state, dressed up up like a Boy Scout and writes songs about John Wayne Gacy (and seemingly this doesn't make people raise their eyebrows just a bit). Don't get me wrong, the attention is deserved, but it also comes at the expense of guys like Kelly Stoltz, a non-telegenic 36 year old whose chief biographical quirk involves a stint sorting fain mail for Jeff Buckley's management company.
To top it off, Stoltz isn't the most original artist around, a trait that has garnered him a lot of critical sniping as Pitchfork gave Below the Branches, his excellent Sub Pop debut, a middling 6.3, alternately praising the ridiculous listenability and dismissing its "hollow" and "impersonal" nature. Stylus wasn't much kinder, hatcheting it with a C, reiterating the same sentiments. Certainly Stoltz's references are obvious: The Beach Boys, Lennon, McCartney and Harrison solo work, with some mid-period Kinks thrown in the mix. But while the music might not be thrilling, it retains an artisanal competence and affability that few records possess.
Stoltz hasn't gotten much recognition from the blogs either, appearing on few year end lists (though Duke named it his favorite record of last year, while it was my #13 pick), not even managing to get much attention opening for the Raconteurs. To top it off, Sub Pop barely promoted the record and subsequently, it moved few units. But live, Kelley Stoltz turned in a performance befitting the tranquil, pastoral vibes of Below the Branches, running through that album mixed in with a grab-bag of crowd-pleasing new cuts.
Effortlessly turning out frothy early Fall melodies filled with rollicking ragtime pianos, and crackling burnt orange guitars, Stoltz' music possesses a sense of levity and buoyancy that trump its lack of originality. Sometimes, a song is just a song and Stoltz understands that, creating music to listen to, not to needlessly analyze. Picking up steam as the set progressed, Stoltz continually kept the affair light-hearted, even taking out a bubble machine and blowing bubbles into the crowd (yes, Mr. Bubble).
Ultimately, Stoltz' might not be blazing new trails, yet he remains an impeccable pop craftsman, deserving of more acclaim than the mixed reception he's received. He does nothing spectacularly but everything well. While his lack of idiosyncrasy or gravity might cause him to get lost in the shuffle, he remains ever-compelling and one of the most breezy and fun singer/songwriters making music today.
from Below the Branches
MP3: Kelley Stoltz-"Memory Collector"
MP3: Kelley Stoltz-"The Sun Comes Through"
from his self-released debut, Antique Glow
MP3: Kelley Stoltz-"Perpetual Night"
MP3: Kelley Stoltz-"Jewel of the Evening"
MP3: Kelley Stoltz-"Underwater's where the Action Is"